Johnson has dominated his era, but now talk turns to whether he's the best of the best
CONCORD, N.C. -- The bearded visage of Jimmie Johnson has been a fixture in NASCAR for more than a decade now, and his trophy case overflows with accomplishments that would have boggled the mind of the off-road racer he once was. With five premier-series championships behind him, his place in history is already secure. With more potentially ahead, his ascendancy in the sport’s pantheon seems unlimited.
Another Sprint Cup season finds Johnson once again solidly atop the points standings, and another Memorial Day weekend finds him once again a threat to win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. These are recurring themes, repeating themselves with all the sureness of that No. 48 car going around and around, to the point where they feel as much a constant as tires and fuel. The idea of a campaign without Johnson setting the bar, and daring others to catch him, now feels as foreign as a race weekend without the smell of barbecue smoke.
"People can say whatever they want about him, but I don't know how you can't say that he's not the best ever."
That he’s the best of his era seems without question, particularly as he maintains a 44-point advantage on the field in that dogged hunt for a fifth career title. No one of his generation has been as good for as long as Johnson, whose lone bobble -- if you can call it that -- in a 12-year career was a sixth-place finish in 2011. In comparison to everyone else, his valleys are mere potholes. You combine that kind of steadiness with his run of championships, and with his victory totals, and with what he and crew chief Chad Knaus may still have ahead of them, and a question comes into focus.
Is Johnson not just the greatest driver of his time, but of all time?
“People can say whatever they want about him, but I don't know how you can't say that he's not the best ever,” Matt Kenseth said. “You look at what he's done with Chad since they've been over here, and nobody has ever put up numbers like that. Nobody has ever won five championships in a row, and probably never will. They're amazing. It's kind of cool to be part of that, because I think someday you’ll look back at history and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I raced against him.’ But at the same time it stinks, because you get beat so many times. I don't know how anybody can argue and say them guys aren't the best of all time.”
That’s very high praise, given that Kenseth (with a series-best three race victories) is perhaps Johnson’s closest competition for the championship this year, and he races for both a rival team and manufacturer. Of course, that’s also the kind of statement capable of driving traditionalists into fits of indignation, given that Johnson has yet to match the record seven premier-series titles accumulated by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. There are plenty of race fans who won’t even consider Johnson for GOAT -- Greatest Of All Time -- status until he reaches that magic milestone. But in some minds, clearly he’s already there.
“When I sit back and look at the numbers, look at what he’s been capable of throughout the years on a consistent, steady basis, it doesn’t matter the race track, it doesn’t matter the circumstances, it seems like he always rises and shines through. I would describe it as perhaps the greatest of all time,” said Nationwide Series points leader Regan Smith. “Best way I can describe it, I think. I feel that strongly about how good he is and what he’s doing in this day in age when the racing is as competitive as it is.”
In fairness, Smith’s JR Motorsports team is affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, which fields Johnson’s car. And the vast majority of the drivers in today’s NASCAR never competed directly against Earnhardt, who was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and certainly not Petty, who retired after the 1992 season. Their knowledge of Johnson is firsthand, complete, and personal, and it all stands in contrast to the exploits of other drivers they’ve seen only on TV. Had they competed in the eras of the King and the Intimidator, they might very well feel the same about them as they do about Five-Time today.
Regardless, though, the conversation clearly exists, and the wake of this week’s announcement of five new NASCAR Hall of Fame members, it’s a debate worth pursuing. By any standard Johnson’s career numbers are staggering -- he has 62 race victories and the potential for many more, and he’s been a contender for the title right down to the wire in almost every full-time season. He’s occasionally benefitted from the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which wiped out a huge lead by Jeff Gordon in 2007 and allowed Johnson to notch title No. 2. But you don’t win multiple championships by accident, and Johnson’s numbingly efficient level of consistency -- 62 percent of his finishes have been top-10s -- would make him a top threat under any format.
“As long as I've been in racing, I've never seen anybody like it ,” said Kasey Kahne, a teammate to Johnson at Hendrick. “And I've been in a lot of different series of racing, and had great competition and not so good a competition at times. But Jimmie is just right on top of it at all times.”
As he is now, coming off his second consecutive and record fourth victory in the Sprint All-Star Race. Then again, by today’s standards, Petty’s statistics are almost impossible to comprehend: 200 victories, 27 in a single season, a stretch of almost two decades where he never finished lower than eighth in final points. Just as Johnson benefits in some minds by the Chase, the King’s numbers were surely aided by previous-era campaigns in which he competed up to 50 times a year. Of course, he still had to go out and win all those races, and while he may have at times enjoyed a sponsorship advantage, that’s no different from today when top drivers benefit from the same thing.
And then there’s Earnhardt, with 76 race wins and a stretch of 11 years where he only once finished outside the top four in final points. His few down years were perhaps more pronounced than Johnson’s, as evidenced by the occasional change of crew chief, but he was still competitive and a viable championship threat up until his final day behind the wheel. Those who knew him have said a Chase format may have played right into Earnhardt’s killer instinct, and it’s wonderful to imagine the prospect of a 10-race playoff in which he and Johnson -- steel-trap minds both -- are trying to get inside one another’s heads.
Who would win? Who knows.
“I think that's what leads to great conversation, debate, and harassment amongst friends that think a different driver from a different generation was better. I don't know how you do it. You can look at stats. But just a different world, for a lot of reasons,” said Johnson, a six-time winner at Charlotte entering Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.
“I think it's the same way when you look at a lot of other pro sports. It's very difficult to pick one. Stats kind of tell the tale at the end of the day, but we would all love to see -- it wouldn't be possible -- but the greatest baseball game with all the Hall of Famers on the field. Same with football. If we could get Petty in his prime, Earnhardt in his prime, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon, go on down the list, that would be an awesome list. We can't do that, so we just have the questions and the conversations, which are great. I'm glad we have those conversations in our sport.”
For his part, Johnson -- as earnest, genuine and uncomplicated today as he was when he raced motorbikes back in El Cajon, Calif. -- seems happy to be included in the argument, and downright floored that some of his contemporaries have already moved him to the head of the list. “I don't know how to quite respond to that. I am honored that they have mentioned me in that way,” he said.
“I just don't pay that much attention to it all. It's very difficult to think about where I fit in while I'm still racing. I think of driver's careers ending mid 40s. I still have 10 years or so to even think about that, worry about that. So to be recognized and thought of and even in the conversation with Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, that's a huge compliment I'm very proud to have.”
At this point, he adds, he’s just honored to be in the conversation. But given the years and accomplishments Jimmie Johnson likely still has in front of him, he certainly has the capacity to finish it.
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